How to Run Backing Tracks Live: A Step by Step Guide

I’m sure you’ll agree with me when I say that as a band, recreating your recorded sound live is crucial.

What’s the best way to do that? Simple:

Use backing tracks.

We receive so many compliments about our live sound because we use backing tracks live.

In this post, I’m going to run through:

  • how to run backing tracks live
  • my exact setup to get both backing and click tracks for drummers
  • and why I think it’s the best way to play backing tracks live for people starting out.

Ready? Let’s get to it!

But first:

Let’s consider if you need a backing track.

Should you consider using a backing track?

Ever since The Beatles popularised multi-track recording, musicians have slowly been adding more and more layers to their recorded songs.

If you play a style of music (e.g. alt-rock, metal, pop) which makes use of a lot of different tracks to add depth and thickness to your songs, you’ll want to play to a backing track live to make it sound like the record for your fans.

If you tend to play more laid back styles of music or have the luxury of having enough members on stage to play all the additional sounds, then lucky you! You’ll probably be fine without a backing track.

The simplest backing track setup for drummers:

I’m going to show you my way of implementing the split-mono method of backing tracks.

Here’s what I love about my setup:

  • Cheap: All of the actual backing track gear can be picked for $100 or less
  • Portable: My entire setup fits within this Stagg Pedalboard
  • Foolproof: I’ve never had it fail on me in 50+ shows
  • Personal mix: The drummer can tweak the backing track, click, master and monitor volumes to create the best mix for them.

Note: Doing it this way only lets you run MONO tracks. Although that’s usually more than enough for most people starting out.

This is the setup I use:

drum cables pi box

Must haves:

  • Music player (I recommend a phone)
  • 4+ channel mixer
  • In-ear monitors
  • 3.5mm(⅛” jack) stereo male to 6.35mm mono L/R male splitter
  • 3.5mm female to 6.35mm male
  • Passive DI with a return/link channel.

Recommended additional items:

  • 2 x 3.5mm (⅛” jack) extension leads
  • A gooseneck clamp to hold your phone while you rock out!

What I use

Here’s the exact list of gear I use. There are a couple of additional cables I use in order to make it more plug ‘n’ play in my pedal box from the list provided above.

  1. Short patch cable
  2. Stereo (3.5mm) to MONO L/R (6.35mm)
  3. Headphone extension cables
  4. Passive DI box
  5. 3.5mm headphone to 6.35mm jack converter
  6. Angle to straight patch cable
  7. Alto ZMX52 mixer
  8. Shure SE215-CL

And it looks like this in the board.

Preparing the tracks

To use this setup we need to create the backing track in a specific way.

I’ll do a full write up about this in another post but we basically want a stereo track:

  • Mixed, backing track
  • Click (in sync with the backing track and with a count-in for the drummer!)

I usually recommend having the backing tRack on the Right channel and cLick on the Left as it’s easier to remember if you ever need to.

Putting it together: Running backing tracks live

Here’s how you want to set up all your equipment:

Let’s break this down. I’ll number bits of gear from earlier in the post for reference.

The phone is playing stereo sound with the splitter cable separating the track: click in the left channel and track in the right channel. (I use stereo headphone extenders to deal with cable length issues live).

The left channel goes into the mixer (channel 2/3) and right channel goes into the input on your DI box.

The right channel goes onto the sound desk. Since it’s passing through the DI box, the desk is getting a clean and balanced signal.

This is the important bit that stops crosstalk or click-bleed coming through the PA!

The link from the DI goes back into the mixer (channel 4/5). This allows the drummer to mix click and track independently.

The last bit is to get a monitor line from the sound desk and put it into channel 1 on the mixer. This will mainly be mixed by the sound engineer so you can hear yourself and the other members of the band!

We use channel 1 for the monitor mix as it has an XLR input and more control over the sound of the input.

And there we have it! Let me know if you have any questions/suggestions in the comments below and I’ll add them into the article!

53 thoughts on “How to Run Backing Tracks Live: A Step by Step Guide”

  1. Hi Rick,

    You’re absolutely right. The DI will only help if your sporadic (yes intermittent) click bleed occurs @ mixer stage. Your issue is that we need to find where in the signal chain the bleed is taking place. Is it by the phone’s headphone output? In the cables themselves (where two hots might be running in a signel shield)? Or somewhere in the mixer? For now I can only implement a proper passive DI and a cable where the two hots split as early as possible. If some bleed still is occuring it has to do with the circuits closer to the phone. The tracks themlselves are hard panned and stellar. Click bleed occurs maybe 1/10 times.

  2. A couple of things to consider are:

    1. If you choose to send click to FOH, you’re probably better off with 2 mono DI boxes as opposed to a single stereo DI. Some cheaper stereo DI’s still use a single transformer and crosstalk may still occur.

    2. If you use a passive DI to send to send click to FOH it will attenuate (lower the volume) of the click somewhat, so the FOH engineer may have to boost the gain significantly to get enough click track to the performers, which may introduce some unwanted noise. Make sure when preparing your tracks and click channels to make them as loud as possible without distortion, and don’t worry about the balance of the sound between L/R. You’ll be controlling the balance later.

  3. I had a question, hopefully you can get back to me on this? I’m thinking of using this setup; what do I do if the sound booth is very far away from the stage? I can’t see using lots of headphone extenders to reach the drummer.

    1. This setup should be near the drummer. The FOH engineer should have a ‘snake’ that connects the stage to sound booth. They should provide an XLR that will plug into your setup, you shouldn’t have to change to help them (I never had to and I’ve played a lot of venues both big and small).

  4. I need your help.

    I came across this site, reading through, I think you may be able to assist me.

    We are doing a fundraising event and the kids (15-18 years olds) would like to form a choir to sing two songs. We would like to use backing tracks and it would be a live performance. I am unsure what I would need to let this work. I have looked at various sites selling backing tracks. What would I need to buy to set this up and how would I set it up.

  5. Hey!
    How would a solo artist go about setting up something similar to this? This article seems to be driven towards drummers/bands, but how would back tracks work for artists who are just dealing with an easier setup such as a vocal mic and acoustic guitar? Thanks in advance for any advice. I’m very new to this and I don’t know where to begin. I’d rather get this right the first time instead go through failed trial & errors phases. Thanks again 🙂

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